Diminuendo and Crescendo in Film Criticism (interview by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

This piece by Ehsan for Fandor’s Keyframe originally appeared on the day before my 70th birthday. — J.R.

jr-15
Jonathan Rosenbaum at 15, imagination in the process of being liberated.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, at the cusp of seventy, talks about a life of jazz and cinema.

By Ehsan Khoshbakht February 26, 2013

The needs-no-introduction film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum turns seventy this month, but that does not mean that he has grown out of touch. His latest book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (University Of Chicago Press, 2010), displays Rosenbaum’s engagement with digital-era realities, and manages something few if any critics of his generation are capable of in the current environment: optimism. Self-catalogued on his own website, the critic’s life of writing, from his late teens to the two-thousand-and-teens, coheres, and the collection of work is unmatched by any living film writer for its breadth and rigor. A closer look at his contribution to film literature (with featured articles in the weightiest of magazines and translations of his baker’s dozen books into languages as diverse as Chinese and Farsi) finds Rosenbaum generally bringing a sense of urgency to his subjects, no matter the decade.

My rather personal ties with the Chicago-based critic comes from our mutual love of jazz, which, aside from its ecstatic pleasures (that sometimes surpasses cinema’s), can assist writers in the ways they approach any other art form.… Read more »

ROME OPEN CITY: History as Adventure

Commissioned by BFI Video for an April 2015 release. — J.R.

OPENCITY-Pina

Charlie Chaplin, the late Gilbert Adair liked to assert, doesn’t simply belong to film history; he belongs to history. And the same might be said for Roberto Rossellini’s first major feature, Roma città aperta. Even though it’s routinely regarded as a landmark in film history — the film that decisively put Italian Neorealism on the global map — one could argue that its lasting importance owes far more to the major role it  played in humanizing the Italian population for the rest of the world after  it emerged from over two decades of Fascist rule under Benito Mussolini.

We don’t hear much about that Fascist rule in Rome Open City, an omission that entails a historical simplification, albeit an understandable as well as an expedient one — not so much an expression of “first things first” as an expression of “second things first,” viewed by most audiences around the world from the vantage point of the war’s end. A project that was first conceived in August 1944, only two months after the Allies had forced the Nazis out of Rome, the film was driven primarily by a desire to expose the brutalities and indignities suffered by Romans under the German occupation as well as the discovery of a common purpose between the Communist and Catholic partisans who had opposed it.… Read more »

Phantom Interviewers Over Rivette (with Gilbert Adair and Lauren Sedofsky)

This originally appeared in Film Comment (September-October 1974).

I was shocked in December 2011 to learn of the death of Gilbert Adair, a close friend during the mid-70s (when both of us were living in Paris, and then for some time later, after I moved to London ahead of Gilbert). Although I can’t swear to this, it’s possible that this collaborative interview may be the first thing that Gilbert ever published; at least it’s the earliest piece of his that I know about. With Michael Graham — also, alas, no longer alive — Gilbert and I had subsequently collaborated on a lengthy production piece for Sight and Sound about Rivette’s Duelle and Noroît, recently reprinted in Arrow’s DVD box set devoted to Rivette, available here and here. — J.R.

 

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Last June, I invited two of my friends — Gilbert Adair and Lauren Sedofsky — to join me in an interview with Jacques Rivette. All three of us had been dazzled by Céline et Julie vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), to the point of considering it the most important new film we’ve seen in years, and it seemed exciting to extend our folie à trois to a meeting with the director.… Read more »

My 25 Favorite Films of the 21st Century (so far)

Not so long ago, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis decided to name their 25 favorite films of this millennium so far. More recently, J. Hoberman decided to play the same game.

I’ve decided to play as well. My only rule in this game, not followed by Hoberman, was to restrict my favorite filmmakers on the list to only one film each –- not always easy, and sometimes downright agonizing. (How, for instance, could I have left out Costa’s Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?, Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Jia’s Platform and Still Life, Linklater’s Waking Life?)

I haven’t provided links here to my writing about these films, but using this site’s search engine should turn up texts about practically all of them. (The only exception that comes to mind is The Clock.)

 

The order below is alphabetical.

 

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg/Kubrick)

Bernie (Linklater)

Certified Copy (Kiarostami)

The Circle (Panahi)

The Clock (Marclay)

*Corpus Callosum (Snow)

The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini)

Down There (Akerman)

Down with Love (Reed)

Farewell to Language (Godard)

Horse Money (Costa)

Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki)

Inland Empire (Lynch)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Andersen)

The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (Gianvito)

Operai, Contadini (Straub-Huillet)

Paterson (Jarmusch)

Pistol Opera (Suzuki)

RR (Benning)

The Silence Before Bach (Portabella)

Son of Saul (Nemes)

The Trap (Curtis)

The Turin Horse (Tarr)

The World (Jia)

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais) [6/21/17]… Read more »

The Warmth and Artifice of MOANA

From the March 2016 issue of Artforum, where it appears under the title “Given Voice”. — J.R.

moana_prelim_poster_graphic

“Until recently,” wrote anthropologist Jay Ruby thirty-odd years ago, “the scholarship and popular press surrounding [Robert J.] Flaherty have tended toward two extremes—portraying him in mythical terms and ‘worshipping’ his films or debunking them as fakes and frauds and castigating him for a lack of social and political consciousness.” But the more balanced view of “Flaherty as a man of his time and culture” that Ruby saw succeeding these extremes still hasn’t fully taken hold, perhaps because the very meaning of the term “documentary” is still being debated. Even when we smile (or flinch) at some of Flaherty’s romantic conceptions, the comprehensive theoretical questions raised by his methods are ones we still can’t confidently say we’ve resolved.

 Moana

Documentary” was reportedly first used in English by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in a pseudonymous rave review of Flaherty’s second feature, Moana (1926). (Seeking to duplicate the success of Nanook of the North [1922], but in warmer climes, Flaherty set sail for the South Seas the following year, his entire family in tow, to shoot a film in Samoa.) Significantly, Grierson employed the novel term to register one of the film’s subordinate virtues: “Of course Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value,” he noted.… Read more »

Real Horror Shows [EYES WITHOUT A FACE & THE KINGDOM]

From the Chicago Reader (November 24, 1995). — J.R.

Eyes Without a Face

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Georges Franju

Written by Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar, and Franju

With Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Béatrice Altariba, François Guerin, Alexandre Rignault, and Claude Brasseur.

The Kingdom

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lars von Trier and Morten Arnfred

Written by von Trier, Niels Vorsel, and Tomas Gislason

With Ernst Hugo Jaregard, Kirsten Rolffes, Ghita Norby, Soren Pilmark, Holger Juul Hansen, Annevig Schelde Ebbe, Jens Okking, Otto Brandenburg, Baard Owe, and Birgitte Raabjerg.

They’re both arty European fantasy meditations on the medical profession — that’s about all that Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959) and Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom (1993) have in common, apart from the fact that they’re both opening here the day after Thanksgiving. The differences between them are much more instructive. Franju’s Les yeux sans visage is a poetic, compact (88 minutes) black-and-white French horror picture about skin grafting that premiered inauspiciously in the United States 32 years ago in a dubbed and reportedly mangled version known as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus; happily, Facets Multimedia is showing it in its original form and subtitled.… Read more »

EXCHANGE WITH JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

An email interview with Federico Casal for the online Uruguayan film magazine Revista Film. Casal has kindly provided me with this English version. — J.R.

EXCHANGE WITH JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

 

“I miss the experience of communal and theatrical filmgoing.”

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum (born February 27, 1943 in Alabama, United States) is an American film critic with more than 50 years of experience. He has written thousands of articles and reviews, as the head critic of the Chicago Reader between 1987 and 2008, and collaborator in The Village Voice, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du Cinéma, Trafic, Film Quarterly, Criterion Collection, among others. He studied literature at Bard College in New York—there he met his most influential teacher, Heinrich Blücher, the German philosopher and second husband of Hanna Arendt. In 1969 he moved to Paris, shortly after which he became Jacques Tati’s assistant for a while and appeared as an extra in Robert Bresson’s Four nights of a dreamer (1971). From Paris he moved to London and then to California. Currently, he lives in Chicago. He has published numerous books on cinema, most recently Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Cannons and Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, and others about Orson Wells, Jacques Rivette and Abbas Kiarostami.… Read more »

Amarcord (1974 review)

This is the first review I ever did for Monthly Film Bulletin, around the same time that I started working for the magazine (at the British Film Institute, then on 81 Dean Street) as assistant editor, in late summer 1974; this ran in their September issue. –J.R.

 

Amarcord

Italy/France, 1973                                                         Director: Federico Fellini


A small Italian town, during the Fascist period. The end of winter is announced by the arrival of manine, a white fluffy substance that blows into the province. That night, a large bonfire is built in the city square to celebrate the beginning of spring; a local resident recounts some of the town’s history. Volpina, the village whore, walks along the beach and flirts with construction workers, including Aurelio Biondi. At a stormy family dinner, Aurelio screams at his teenage son Titta for not working, and Titta is later sent b y his mother, Miranda, to the priest for confession. Asked whether he masturbates, he recalls and imagines several encounters with women in the town. A fascist rally is held to greet a visiting dignitary. That night, the police shoot down a gramophone from a church tower when they hear it playing a “subversive” song; prevented by Miranda from attending the rally, Aurelio is brutally interrogated by the police.… Read more »

Notes on THE WHITE SHEIK

My liner notes for the Criterion DVD (2003). If memory serves, this was probably the first such essay that I wrote for producer Issa Clubb. — J.R.

ORSON WELLES: Fellini is essentially a small-town boy who’s never really come to Rome. He’s still dreaming about it. And we should all be very grateful for those dreams. In a way, he’s still standing outside looking in through the gates. The force of La Dolce Vita comes from its provincial innocence. It’s so totally invented.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Maybe the “small-town” aspect is why I like I Vitelloni most of all his films.

WELLES: After The White Sheik, it’s the best of all.

Welles’ preference for The White Sheik (1952), Federico Fellini’s first solo feature, over all the others is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Critically speaking, it’s one of the Italian maestro’s most neglected works. In his The Italian Cinema, Pierre Leprohon wrote that it “seems to have been a kind of liquidation of the past in preparation for the emergence of the Fellinian universe, a chance for the author to work off his hatred and rancors.”

Most critics haven’t been so harsh; a more common verdict is to see this as an apprentice work, a sketch of the Fellinian splendors to come.… Read more »

Rediscovering Charlie Chaplin

From Cineaste, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, September 2004. This is also reprinted in my latest collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

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Although I suspect many would dispute this characterization, I think the period we’re now living through may well be the first in which scholars have finally figured out a good way of teaching film history. And significantly, this discovery isn’t necessarily coming out of academic film study, even if a few academics are making major contributions to it.


I’m speaking, of course, about the didactic materials accompanying the rerelease of some classic films on DVD. Three examples that I believe illustrate my thesis especially well are (1) the various commentaries or audiovisual essays offered by Yuri Tsivian on DVD editions of Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer (Milestone), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Kino International/BFI), and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Criterion); (2) the commentaries offered by David Kalat on Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Blackhawk Films) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Criterion); and (3) the various documentary materials offered on “The Chaplin Collection,” a twelve-box set issued jointly by MK2 and Warners and put together with the full resources and cooperation of the Charles Chaplin estate.… Read more »

Truffaut & Me & Bazin (a memoir, a review, and three letters)

The first and last parts of what follows are taken (and in a few cases adapted) from my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

In spite of my five years of living in Paris, my grasp of French has always been mediocre — a weakness that over the years I’ve come to regard as a sort of disability, because I’ve made many efforts to overcome it. That François Truffaut had a similar (and similarly embarrassing) problem with his English set the stage for a rather awkward and uncomfortable afternoon in London between the two of us — with his assistant Suzanne Schiffmann often serving as mutual interpreter – after I’d signed with Harper & Row to carry out a translation of Bazin’s book on Welles, as well as a new Foreword to that book that Truffaut was writing. Truffaut undoubtedly came away from that afternoon with some understandable skepticism about why I’d been hired to do this job, while I emerged, somewhat defensively, with the impression that he was closer to being a nervous and irritable businessman than the sort of critic and director that I had formerly revered.

I hasten to add that I wasn’t bluffing when I’d praised in print Bazin’s 1950 monograph on Welles in 1971 as the best criticism published about him —- or at least not entirely.Read more »

Washington Paranoia from the Left and Right: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL & MY SON JOHN

Written in July 2008 for an issue of Stop Smiling devoted to Washington, D.C. In a way, the recent Arrival might be said to qualify as a mystical remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I found it every bit as gripping. — J.R.

 

To get the full measure of what Cold War paranoia was doing

to the American soul, two of the best Hollywood A-pictures

of the early 50s, each of which pivots around its Washington,

D.C. locations – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and My

Son John (1952) — still speak volumes about their shared zeitgeist,

even though they couldn’t be further apart politically.

 

An archetypal liberal parable in the form of a science fiction

thriller and an archetypal right-wing family tragedy (with deft

slapstick interludes) that’s even scarier, they’re hardly equal in

terms of their reputations. Leo McCarey’s My Son John, widely

regarded today as an embarrassment for its more hysterical elements,

has scandalously never come out on video or DVD [2014 footnote, it's

now available from Olive Films], though in its own era it garnered

even more prestige than Robert Wise’s SF thriller, having received

an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay.Read more »

A Matter of Life and Death: A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Written for the 40th anniversary issue of the French quarterly magazine Trafic (Winter 2011). I subsequently introduced a screening of this film at the Centre Georges Pompidou on January 12, 2012 as part of a film series built around this issue, and my introduction (in French and English) can be accessed on video here.  For my original review of this film, go here. — J.R.

1

 

Am I weeping for the death of David’s mother, for the death of humans, for the death of photography, or for the death of movies?

James Naremore, On Kubrick

 

 

The scene in question, the final one in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, features a robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), and a cloned duplication of a human woman, Monica (Frances O’Connor), who died centuries before and whom David was still earlier programmed by Monica to love as a mother. These characters are shown going to bed together and falling asleep, the robot for the first time and Monica for the last time, after spending a happy day together.… Read more »

The Attractions and Perils of Internationalism (2007)

My fourth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their December 2007 issue (no. 7). — J.R.

I’ve been reflecting lately about the attractions and perils of internationalism, which bring up the matter of the attractions and perils of nationalism as well. As a child of the Paris Cinématheque (1969-74) who had to see most silent films there without intertitles, following Henri Langlois’ vision of cinema as a universal language, I was both charmed and awed when I met an Argentinian schoolteacher, in Mar del Plata in 2005, who told me about the network of small-town ciné-clubs in Córdoba he helped to run that projected DVDs of such films as Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) and Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) with Spanish subtitles for 800 or more viewers per week. A utopian undertaking in which quintessential Iranian and Russian films became available to rural Argentinians, this conjured up for me Langlois’ notion of cinema as a separate nation in its own right. So when several Chilean journalists at the Valdivia International Film Festival asked me last October what I thought of the Chilean film industry, the question sounded as weird as my asking a Chilean visiting Chicago what he or she thought of the American postal system.… Read more »

Hollywood From the Fringes [INLAND EMPIRE]

From the January 25, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

INLAND EMPIRE ****

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY DAVID LYNCH WITH LAURA DERN, JUSTIN THEROUX, JEREMY IRONS, KAROLINA GRUSZKA, HARRY DEAN STANTON, AND GRACE ZABRISKIE

David Lynch’s first digital video, almost three hours long, resists synopsizing more than anything else he’s done. Some viewers have complained, understandably, that it’s incomprehensible, but it’s never boring, and the emotions Lynch is expressing are never in doubt. Asked many years ago about the origins of the nightmarish Eraserhead (1978), his first and best feature, he forthrightly replied, “Philadelphia.” If asked the same thing today about the no less nightmarish Inland Empire, he might say, “Hollywood.”

Many of my colleagues believe Lynch’s best early feature is Blue Velvet (1986), which I regard as a gripping but limited piece of designer porn. Like his more offensive Wild at Heart and his more charming TV series Twin Peaks (both 1990), Blue Velvet offers a vivid illustration of how a man can turn his most lurid puritanical obsessions into clout and big money — and get an audience to wallow in those obsessions without thinking about them very hard. It has little of the meditative integrity and private intensity of Eraserhead, but then little in his work before Inland Empire did.… Read more »